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The folks heading up the city-funded neighborhood branding initiative for a region around 14th and U Streets learned last night that getting consensus around the idea of a unified, arts-oriented identity might require some convincing.
In a packed gathering at Busboys and Poets, project leaders Andrea Doughty and Carol Felix ran through their plans to host a street banner design contest and an outreach campaign to market an area that stretches from Florida Avenue down to Rhode Island and 15th Street to 7th Street NW. The concept, Felix explained, would be an “umbrella brand” for the many successful “mini-brands” represented by each neighborhood that region touches, including U Street, Little Ethiopia, Shaw, Logan Circle, and Dupont Circle. This month, they’ll launch a design competition for street banners that will be installed in time for a three-day arts festival in early December. Most importantly, Felix explained, the branding campaign should portray the area as “fun.”
To more fully explicate that concept, Doughty and Felix convened a panel of local figures moderated by tourism expert Michael Altman, who threw around jargony business terms like “flavor,” “genesis story,” and “value proposition.” But panelists quickly added a race and class dimension to the discussion. Busboys and Poets proprietor Andy Shallal explained arts marketing as a facilitator of racial harmony in a place that looks diverse, but isn’t necessarily integrated—longtime local gallery owner Sandra Butler-Truesdale described her frustration at seeing black couples, white couples, and Asian couples walking down the street, but little actual racial mixing. Virginia Tech’s Derek Hyra, who’s working on a book about race and redevelopment in the Shaw/U Street area, noted that people especially start to segregate within neighborhood institutions like ANCs and civic associations. Rick Lee, whose family has owned a flower and card shop on U Street since the 1940s, sees the branding process as a way to reclaim a sense of vibrance and “hoopla” that had been lost in recent decades.
During a Q&A period afterwards, skeptical questions arose. One audience member wanted to know why the area didn’t include more of Columbia Heights, implying that the map had been drawn to stop short of the lower-income blocks north of Florida Avenue. Actor and writer Sheldon Scott asked whether the plan included retaining housing and performance spaces for local artists, who tend to get priced out of areas as they get more attractive—Felix acknowledged that several people had raised similar concerns, and while the grant is limited to marketing, they were bearing the issue in mind.
The most pointed critique, though, came from Junction Vintage owner Shannan Fales, who wondered why the marketing initiative was so focused on theaters and galleries, and how that would help retail and restaurants, especially over such a large and diverse area.
“I have nothing in common with a business down at the Convention Center,” Fales said, noting that she wouldn’t necessarily even recommend someone walk that way at night. “I don’t want to be part of an arts district, because I’m already part of something—the Midcity Business Association.” Applause came from the back of the room.
The idea, of course, is that investment in the arts pays off for other businesses that profit from their proximity. But Felix and Doughty will have to keep making that case.
The next two meetings are scheduled for September 7th and 13th. Details here.